Feeling Home: Culturally-Responsive Approaches to Aboriginal Homelessness

McCallum and Isaac, Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia, 2011

This project draws findings from a literature review, interviews and case studies.

Who was involved in this study?

Aboriginal people who are homeless.

What issues are they facing?

This project found that Aboriginal people in Canada:

  • are 10 times more likely than non-Aboriginal people to become homeless;
  • have the same barriers as other homeless people, but may also experience prejudice and racism;
  • are more likely to be absolutely homeless as opposed to staying in a shelter;
  • are more likely to be younger than the non-Aboriginal homeless population.

Homeless counts over the years have shown that Aboriginal people are overrepresented in the homeless population:

  • 62% of homeless people in Winnipeg are Aboriginal (2005)
  • 46% in Saskatoon (2008)
  • 15% in Calgary (2008)
  • 66% in Prince George (2010)
  • 38% in Edmonton (2010)
  • 24% in Metro Vancouver (2011)

Approaches to Cultural Responsiveness

Four programs in Western Canada that demonstrate culturally-responsive approaches to Aboriginal homelessness and make homeless-related services more accessible to Aboriginal peoples are highlighted.

Kootenay Lodge, Universal Rehabilitation Service Agency, Calgary


  • Serves homeless Aboriginal adults 18 to 65 years old who have severe physical and emotional disabilities and are prepared to live in a drug- and alcohol-free home.
  • Provides housing for 10 residents in a private shared house with support from a house manager and assistant managers, community rehabilitation workers, caregivers and volunteers.
  • Provides access to registered nurses, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dieticians and psychologists, through community resources and private practitioners.
  • Maintains Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff members; all new employees must take part in an Aboriginal Awareness program and Elders lead workshops to help establish a baseline of cultural understanding.
  • Promotes the use of cultural medicines and participation in pow wows, round dances, sweat lodges, smudging and naming ceremonies, Native arts and crafts, sweetgrass ceremonies and prayers, traditional cooking and feasts.
  • Requires residents to be on Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped and pay room and board charges. Staff work with residents and/or their parent/guardian to establish a yearly budget when they move in.
  • Monitors residents' success after a trial period of up to three months, at six months and then at one year.

Lu'Ma Native Housing Society, Vancouver


  • Provides 300 culturally-appropriate and affordable housing units for low-income Aboriginal people, Aboriginal tenants who qualify for medical reasons, seniors, and students.
  • Encourages clients to preserve and practice their own Aboriginal customs and traditions.
  • Provides culturally-relevant programs, including button blanket making and jewellery making courses, blessings, smudging and ceremonial activities.
  • Ensures that there is Aboriginal presence at the employee, management and Board levels.
  • Provides counselling, guidance, referral services, and central facilities for meetings, educational and recreational activities.

Ni-Apin Program, Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg, Winnipeg

  • Serves clients who are Aboriginal, homeless and suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues.
  • Operates out of the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre of Winnipeg (AHWC), a non-profit centre that serves the Aboriginal community in Winnipeg.
  • Provides services based on Seven Sacred Teachings – sharing, caring, kindness, humility, trust, honesty and respect. Clients may choose to have traditional, contemporary or a mixture of both services.
  • In partnership with the AHWC, provides: a wellness centre, a children's health program, Aboriginal pre-school, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/effects prevention program, men's healthy living program, and a residential school program.
  • Uses a Housing First model where housing is provided before other personal challenges are addressed. After intake and needs assessments, participants are given a placement and support in either short-term supported housing or long-term market housing.
  • Uses intake assessments and materials developed based on the Ni-Apin Service Wheel – a medicine wheel that outlines the 4 phases of the "journey" at Ni-Apin from homelessness to independence.
    • Phase 1 (0-3 months): New beginnings, new life, learning and sharing, and identity.
    • Phase 2 (1-3 years): Honesty and trust, Discovery, Joy in Awareness, and Social Environments and relationships.
    • Phase 3 (2-4 years): Respect, kindness, activity which is nurturing to self and others, and foundation of supports.
    • Phase 4 (3-4 years): Knowledge, understanding and wisdom, expression of voice, caring and independence.
  • Provides cultural programming including teaching circles, sharing circles, and cultural retreats. A cultural advisor is available to clients on a one-to-one basis. Clients can practice painting, bead work, jewellery making and weaving in the drop-in centre.

Ni-Apin Program activities are organized by a set of "Program Pillars". Pillars include:

  • Program intake
  • Personal development
  • Food security
  • Support and advocacy
  • Literacy and education
  • Cultural programming
  • One-to-one counselling
  • Medical support
  • Referral services
  • Pre-employment and employment


My Aunt's Place (MAP), YWCA Regina


  • Serves homeless women (90% Aboriginal) and is based on a Housing First model.
  • Offers life skills and outreach services to help women who have never lived on their own or had to pay rent.
  • Provides work in the house and contributes to day-to-day site maintenance, including helping to plan and make meals.
  • Provides cross-cultural training and cultural activities such as smudging.
  • Gives women and children the opportunity to connect with their roots through a resident Elder, who works with clients on an "as needed" basis and in tandem with the Outreach Worker.

Staff at My Aunt's Place include: Program manager; Housing Coordinator ; Outreach worker; Front line support workers; Aboriginal Elder , and; House support worker.

How to offer Culturally Responsive Approaches to Aboriginal Homelessness?

According to interviewees, culturally-responsive services involve:

  • Aboriginal-led organizations that hire Aboriginal staff and provide opportunities to connect with Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal governance that supports culturally responsive programs.
  • An understanding of cultural values, tradition, communication, learning styles and history.
  • An understanding of cultural "ways" – the means by which culture is expressed – rather than cultural facts.
  • Services that are open, respectful, and non-judgemental.
  • A spacious meeting room that offers opportunities for socialization, cultural events and ceremonies.
  • A sense of humour when interacting with the clients.
  • Partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organizations by hiring Aboriginal staff and developing Aboriginal leadership and capacity.
One of the simplest and most effective approaches to making Aboriginal people feel welcome is to use a universal Aboriginal greeting, "Where you from?"

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